17 July 2017

The Origins of the Term Gerrymander

Recently I have started discussing the topic of gerrymandering in my Constitutional Law courses. The term itself must sound funny to a non-native speaker. What on earth is a "gerrymander?" I suspect most native speakers also do not know the origin of this term and simply throw it around without ever wondering about this. A recent post by the National Constitutional Center explains that the "gerry" part of the term is linked to founding father and former Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry. Gov. Gerry notoriously pushed a plan to redraw the lines of the political districts within the state. Critics of the plan were quick to point out that one of the districts looked like a salamander, and a political cartoon (see above) coined his plan as "gerrymandering." The term has stuck ever since.  

29 June 2017

Executive Privilege: A Primer

The National Constitution Center recently posted a piece on Executive Privilege that is a must read for my students in Introduction to U.S. Law and Fundamentals of Constitutional Law. As students will remember, Executive Privilege allows the President and his advisers to keep their conversations private. Of course, like many of the things we have talked about in class concerning executive power, President Trump has made this once boring topic come to life. As the National Constitution Center writes:
Currently, the Trump administration has requested that a federal district court based in Detroit consider an executive privilege claim related to memos prepared by Trump campaign adviser Rudy Giuliani about an alleged Muslim ban – written before Trump became President. The request is under consideration.

27 June 2017

Breaking Presidential Ties

Here is a nice review for students in my Fundamentals of U.S. Constitutional Law and Introduction to U.S. Law courses. It touches on what happens when no one gets a majority of the votes in the Electoral College. If students understand the prior sentence, they are in good shape for the exam!

26 May 2017

The Strange Journey of the 27th Amendment

The Constitution Daily blog has piece it runs every year (at least a version of it) entitled "How a C-grade college term paper led to a constitutional amendment." Students in my constitutional law course have heard me say how difficult it is to amendment the U.S. Constitution. Since its ratification 228 years ago, the document has only been amended 27 times, 10 of which came a mere two years after the initial ratification. That means only 17 amendments in 226 years! The most recent amendment, as the article notes, actually was submitted for ratification over 226 years ago, but didn't obtain enough votes from the states until 1992. That's one long process. To find out what happened, take a look at the article above or watch this YouTube video. It's an interesting story.

24 May 2017

Jurors told not to surf the web

Jurors in England will soon be told that surfing the web while serving as a juror in search of information related to the case or parties is strictly verboten. As Law Society Gazette reports:

The juror notice states that it is illegal for jurors 'to look for any information at all about your case on the internet or anywhere else during the trial or to have anyone else look for you'.

Jurors cannot look for any information about: any person involved in the case, including the judge and legal teams; the law and legal terms used in the case; the crime or crime scene; and court procedures.

The Role of the Judiciary

On heels of President Trump's angry tweets about judges after his so-called Muslim Ban was struck down, Lyle Denniston at the Constitution Daily Blog couldn't hide his displeasure in a post entitled
"Analysis: A constitutional lesson for a new president." Denniston begins by quoting Chief Justice John Marshall:

"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”


The quote is taken from the landmark Marbury v. Madison case, establishing the Court as the final interpreter of the Constitution, and it nicely sums up the constitutional role of the federal courts. The rest of the post is well worth a read, as it not only is aimed at giving the President a lessen concerning the role of the courts in the American system, it also serves as a lesson for students in my courses as well.

23 May 2017

Removing a Juror Who Relied on a "Higher Power"

A local Jacksonville, Florida news station recently reported that a U.S. District Court judge removed a juror who claimed she would rely on a "higher power" to help her decide the case. First Coast News reports:
A juror said he’d been told by "My Father in Heaven” that former Congresswoman Corrine Brown was not guilty in the federal case against her, according to a transcript released late Monday. “Did you say the words, ‘A higher being told me that Corrine Brown was not guilty on all charges?’” U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan asked Juror 13, according to the transcript.“No,” the juror responded. “I said the Holy Spirit told me.”
This conversation took place after the case was finished as the jury was about to deliberate. Fellow jurors who overhead the juror make a similar statement brought their concerns to the Judge's attention, which ultimately led to her removal form the case. It illustrates the power judges have to remove jurors in order to avoid potential irregularities in the trial.

22 May 2017

Removing the President

There is a thorough article in the Online version of Cicero entitled "Wird Trump gefeuert?" that students are encouraged to take a look at. Not only is this a good description in German of the various ways Trump can be removed (I gave you the English version in class), it also draws the correct conclusions about the politics involved in such a decision.

Juries and Racial Bias

The justice system itself is not immune to racism, so one would think that racism is also a problem when it comes to juries. But what legal impact does alleged racial bias on the part of jurors have on the outcome of a case? The U.S. Supreme Court recently answered this question by saying such bias potentially violates the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.

The real question before the Court involved the general rule that jury deliberations are confidential. But in this case a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that charges of racial bias might open the door to break this confidentiality rule. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed — including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered — is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts." 

21 May 2017

How Presidents Shape the Judiciary

Good reminder in Die Zeit about how Presidents can shape the judicial branch. A few things to keep in mind. Presidents still need the consent of the Senate to do this, which is not always a given when the Senate is controlled by the opposition party. Also Trump is no different than his predecessors in wanting to shape the Judiciary. What's different is Trump doesn't really seem to care about this and instead is using it as an incentive to get conservatives to support him.

15 May 2017

Amending the Constitution

A few months back the New Yorker ran piece explaining how close the Republican Party is to controlling a enough state legislatures needed to call a constitutional convention of sorts. As the above diagram illustrates, there are two ways to start the process of amending the constitution. Normally, the process is started by two-thirds of the Congress (both houses!) agreeing on text. The last time this happened, to the best of my knowledge, was in 1978 when Congress passed the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, which would have given D.C. full representation in Congress. Only 16 states voted in favor of the amendment.

Other than that, the closest Congress has come recently to sending a proposed amendment to the states was the Flag Desecration Amendment, which would have allowed for states to punish people who burned the American flag, overturning two Supreme Court decisions stating that individuals have a free speech right to do so. The measure passed the two-thirds threshold in the House but fell one vote short in the Senate.

The New Yorker piece notes, with alarm, that the Republican Party is close to having control of two-thirds of the state legislatures, which could result in a constitutional amendment being offered via the second method above, something that, to the best of my knowledge, has never happened before. The article notes that while a constitutional convention would most likely be called only to propose a so-called Balanced Budget Amendment, things could move in a different direction once the delegates met:
The original Constitutional Convention was intended only to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation, not to do away with them, but the delegates literally took the law into their own hands and drafted a new document. It’s easy to imagine that an Article V convention would find it difficult to limit its agenda to the technicalities of budget finance. Abortion, the most divisive social issue of the past forty years, has insinuated itself into nearly every discussion of nominees for the Supreme Court. Could a gathering intoxicated by the possibility of imposing permanent change resist the urge to achieve by amendment what decades of lobbying, protesting, and the cultivation of sympathetic judicial candidates could not? Similarly, as the battle over immigration has intensified, conservatives have toyed with the idea of ending birthright citizenship, currently guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The allure of bypassing legislative stalemate on that issue might also prove tempting.
In the age of Trump, it is easy to conjure up images of American democracy as we know it seeking to exist (as anyone who has heard me discuss the constitution know, I don't believe this is a possibility). This article lays out a scenario for the dismantling of sacred rights. I suppose if Trump can be elected President, anything is possible. 

12 May 2017

Investigating Trump

Stefan Kornelius had a great piece in the SZ yesterday about how President Trump is threatening the rule of law in America. Deep into the piece Kornelius writes:
Sollte Trump die verwegene Idee verfolgt haben, mit dem Rauswurf die Russland-Ermittlungen beenden zu können, so hat er nun das Gegenteil erreicht. Selbst wenn der Kongress keinen Sonderermittler durchsetzen kann - das entsprechende Gesetz ist 1999 ausgelaufen, ohne erneuert worden zu sein -, so ist der Appetit an den Ermittlungen jetzt erst so richtig geweckt. Trump mag die Aufklärung verzögern, aber er kann nicht verhindern, dass seine allemal schwache Gefolgschaft im Kongress weiter schwindet und die dünne Mehrheit der Republikaner im Senat bröckelt. Amerika ist eine starke Demokratie, die auch ein Trump nicht so einfach ins Wanken bringen kann.
This is exactly right. If it becomes obvious that Trump is trying to impede a legitimate investigation, Congress will act, even if it is controlled by Republicans. The Republicans might want to support Trump, but they also don't want to lose their seats when they are up for re-election in 2018. They will if they are seen to be aiding a President who is trying to obstruct justice.

As an aside, students in my Constitutional law class are getting a real time lesson in how the President can be investigated. Take a look at the slides again from last week to have a fuller understanding of what Kornelius means in the quoted paragraph above.